This is the second of my vintage articles I’m re-posting. I wrote it for CityBeat back in the spring of 2017 after a spate of racist events unfolded at UCSD. What I wrote then is pretty pertinent to where I am right now, in my current state of mind, even if I may no longer be as interested in—or as concerned with—treating people delicately when discussing race. The lone comment on this story underscores why my attitude has shifted. Someone named “wilder” said about my piece:
take a chill pill. live and let live. not everyone is out to get everyone else. grow up.
Indeed. I will not take a chill pill. And clearly, of the two of us? wilder and me? I am the grown-up.
I’m a grown-up on a serious journey, and while I’m happy to have the serious discussions to which I refer in the text below, you’re either coming with me or you’d better get out of the way.
As most readers know, mine is a blended family. And while skin color is not my focus when going about my day-to-day life—when I’m praising and disciplining, wiping and nagging, feeding and doting and generally loving up on my kid—it would be a lie to say I don’t see skin color. I see it every day.
Or, it’s not so much that I see it, per se, since I’m not talking about light-passing-through-retina-to-optic-nerve kind of seeing. It’s more of a perpetual existential awareness of race, in general, and of white privilege, in particular.
It’s something I’m acutely aware of when, say, I overhear a white man at my dentist’s office joke with a booming laugh, that his favorite hygienist is in danger of coming back from her African honeymoon “with a bone through her nose.”
Or when a white male college student says to a white female college student, “The reason why UCSD has low enrollment of black students is because the school doesn’t have a decent athletic program.” Or when the white female college student responds with an emphatic and confident, “I totally agree.” Which makes perfect sense, of course, since all black people are athletes, rock stars or gangsters.
In situations such as these, my cave-woman impulse is to bang on my chest with my fists while screaming, What the fuck is wrong with you, you spoiled, small-brained, advantaged diplerp, booger-wads? But I’ve found this approach doesn’t get me very far toward engaging these people in a thoughtful chat about why their expressed viewpoint is so skewed. And racist, too. There’s that.
But I’m more evolved than a prehistoric human (hopefully). If I flew off the handle every time I came up against someone who didn’t want to discuss white privilege, nobody would talk to me anymore.
Most who will talk about it will only talk about it so much before they halt conversation with the that’s-just-white-person’s-guilt defense. Even calm and respectful attempts at defending my position with irrefutable examples have a time limit that, once reached, results in eyes darting to anything but mine.
Too often, though, it’s not that white people are unwilling to continue a talk about white privilege. Rather, they cannot talk about it at all, due to their refusal to even acknowledge in the first place, the myriad privileges they enjoy, which were never earned, but which are nevertheless as inherent as any genetic trait.
But, still, like rolling a boulder up a mountain, when the subject comes up, I try.
One of the hazards of being the white parent of a black child, as a tireless advocate in the effort to eliminate racism, is the perpetual risk of alienation. Another parent once told me—as we chatted about educational paths for our daughters and I expressed my desire for a school with lots of diversity—that I’m “overly sensitive to race.”
“No,” I said. “I’m not overly sensitive to race. I’m aware of it. There’s a difference.” That parent and I haven’t spoken since.
I can’t be too passionate; I have to be just-right passionate. I can’t be too outspoken; I have to be just-right outspoken. And by “just-right,” I mean the perfect amount that doesn’t make the person on the other end of the dialogue uncomfortable. Never knowing what the “just-right” amount is—though it’s usually very, very little—if I’m not careful, I quickly become that lady, the one standing in a sea of eggshells with the chip on her shoulder. And really: Be careful what you say to her.
Making sure others are comfortable makes me constantly uncomfortable, and I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t what it’s like to be black in America.
Of course, talking with or confronting strangers is hardly as loaded because my investment is negligible. I’m less inclined to fret about the repercussions of speaking up (did I say too much? Did I offend him?). A checker at Smart & Final recently said to me, during what was otherwise a casual discussion about the difficult economy we’re all enduring: “Those Somali women are crooks. Every last one of them. They are ruining our race.”
“That’s an ugly thing to say and I don’t share that viewpoint,” I countered as I grabbed my stuff to leave, while she flushed and mumbled that I’d taken it the wrong way. Outside, I was calm, but inside I was raging. (As an aside, when Googling “famous white women outburst” to find a metaphorical example, the first two hits were Serena Williams and Kanye West. I’m pretty sure neither of them is a white woman. But! One is an athlete, while the other is a rock star, which reinforces what those intellectuals up there in Paragraph 3 were saying.)
The point is, strangers are easy to address because whichever tack I use, I always walk away, and it matters not what they think of me.
But the same does not go for friends and family. When a conversation with people I care about comes to an impasse, there is no grabbing my things and leaving. I have to find a way to move beyond the discomfort, accept that we don’t all see things the same way and still be true to my values. Like anyone else, I get angry when I feel like I’m not heard, like I’m misunderstood or like I’m being dismissed. But huffing around in hysterics doesn’t nurture relationships.
I try to be mindful, especially in the heated moments, that we all view the world through the lens of our own life experience. It just so happens that mine has taken me on a different path than most. And while I want those whom I care about to take it with me, forcing things isn’t going to make them want to come along.
So I don’t let frustrations keep me from trying. I will always try. I can’t not try. And this, I hope, is how things will change for my daughter and her generation.